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Passion Play: Duke Takes Down Gonzaga In Vegas, 84-81

We’re going to be talking about this one for a long time

Continental Tire Challenge - Duke v Gonzaga
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 26: Paolo Banchero #5 and Mark Williams #15 of the Duke Blue Devils celebrate on the court after the team’s 84-81 victory over the Gonzaga Bulldogs to win the Continental Tire Challenge at T-Mobile Arena on November 26, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Gonzaga was favored by -7 but as people have been saying lately, Duke is never an underdog: the Blue Devils came to Las Vegas and showed the world what Duke Basketball means with an 84-81 win. And as a result, with #1 Gonzaga, #2 UCLA and #3 Kansas all losing, the Blue Devils are going to move into the Top 3 and have a strong argument to be #1 on Monday (Baylor, and especially Purdue, will have something to say about it as well).

To an extent, although not nearly as dramatically, Duke did what Baylor did last spring: they showed they were a more athletic team than Gonzaga.

Although cramps really limited his second half performance, Paolo Banchero had a dominant first half with 21 points and just having his way with the Zags.

To an extent, Mark Williams did the same with Drew Timme. Although Timme finished with 17 points, Williams held him in check. Timme shot 7-13 but when he was faced with Williams, he blinked, and more than once and Williams ran wild inside.

As great as Banchero’s first half performance was, in many ways Williams was the story. He finished with 17 points, nine boards and five or six blocks (we’re not sure ESPN’s count is accurate) and had two more that were overruled by the officials, both seemingly in error: the first was ruled goaltending, although Williams clearly hit the ball before it hit the backboard, and the second was ruled a foul against Timme. Replay appeared to show it was a clean block.

Wendell Moore also had a solid game with 20 points, six boards, six assists and four steals.

Which brings us around to defense.

Although the Zags hit 53.1 percent overall, Duke held a great three point shooting team to 6-21. They also kept a good rebounding team to just eight offensive boards.

Duke’s physical frontline also underscored Gonzaga’s vulnerability there: Timme is a wonderful basketball player but he’s pretty close to maxing out his athleticism. That’s far from true for Holmgren. He’s going to be great, and he’s truly tough, but he’s painfully thin. Duke pushed him around often and he wasn’t able to respond in kind.

Not many teams can challenge both of them but Duke was able to.

Julian Strawther had a great game with 20 points while Rasir Bolton finished with 15. Andrew Nemhard shot just 2-7 but had 11 assists and eight boards.

For Duke, this game was less about stats than toughness because there was some real adversity to overcome, starting with this simple fact: Gonzaga’s great and presents all kinds of problems.

Then Banchero and Moore had cramping issues again, as they did in New York vs. Kentucky.

The starting backcourt combined to shoot just 5-24 and Duke got just 11 from the bench and didn't get a great game out of AJ Griffin.

Toss in foul trouble for Williams and dismal foul shooting and it was a lot to overcome.

That a young Duke team persevered and overcame all of that to knock off a team that had started to seem like a juggernaut, well, it’s just huge.

And while Banchero deserves enormous praise for his first half, which was spectacular, and Moore for the brilliance of his overall game, we’d like to also mention a few other factors that we thought were key.

First, aside from his spectacular stats, Williams did two things extremely well: he ran the court like a dream and he asserted himself inside like we’ve never seen him do before.

We said before that despite his open court skills, we weren’t sure that Holmgren was all that fast. He didn’t look it in this one.

And second, we thought that when he was in, Theo John brought great maturity and intelligence to the court. He’s been brilliant in that he’s accepted his role and been a rock for his team.

Finally, Joey Baker has clearly been better this year but at times has pushed things a bit. Not in this one. Baker was in control and dangerous.

As Jay Bilas said at the end of this great, great game, these teams are likely to meet again. And when they do, we expect Holmgren will be improved. But ask yourself where Duke would have been if a) they had shot better than 15-25 from the line, b) if their backcourt had hit 40 percent instead of 20 and if they had hit four threes instead of one.

And also how the second half would have gone if Banchero had been fully available.

We’ll see what happens if they play again but on this night, Duke won because Duke, simply, was tougher.


Player Of The Game vs. Gonzaga

This poll is closed

  • 41%
    Wendell Moore Jr.
    (431 votes)
  • 6%
    Paolo Banchero
    (71 votes)
  • 49%
    Mark Williams
    (509 votes)
  • 0%
    Jeremy Roach
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Trevor Keels
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    AJ Griffin
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Joey Baker
    (10 votes)
  • 0%
    Theo John
    (3 votes)
1031 votes total Vote Now